It Started with a Scandal(3)

By: Julie Anne Long



She slid a tentative inch backward as Lord Lavay lowered himself into the chair opposite her, slowly.

He’s in Sussex recovering from an attack, she’d been told.

She began to think it was an attack of apoplexy.

She could see their two faces reflected in the polished wood of the table. His clean-­hewn as wood itself. Hers small and white, looking a little too insignificant.

“Splendid. We have established you do indeed know how to sit. A very good thing, as I do not tolerate liars.” He smiled again faintly here, which she supposed was meant to soften that little thrown-­down gauntlet of a statement.

She offered a tight little smile of her own. Demonstrating my ability to smile.

“What do you believe are your qualifications, Mrs. Fountain?”

What an interesting way to put it. As if he alone would judge whether she possessed any qualifications at all.

“I have been trained—­” She was shocked to hear her voice emerge as a reedy croak, probably due to the thin atmosphere his lofty presence created. She cleared her throat. “I have been trained in the managing of a fine residence, from adhering to budgets to deciding upon household purchases to preparing pastries and remedies and simples, to hiring and discharging—­”

“Where?”

She blinked. “I’m sor . . . ?”

“The residence,” he articulated slowly. “Where was this, as you say, fine residence?”

She’d been with the man for fewer than five minutes and she wanted to kick him.

“Northumberland.”

“For whom did you manage this residence?”

She hesitated. Her heartbeat ratcheted up.

“The home belongs to my parents. I was raised and educated there.”

She did not say she was no longer welcome in it.

If he wanted the whole story, he was going to need to drag it from her one question at a time.

His gaze was so intense it was as though he held the tips of two lit cheroots to her skin.

Perhaps he already knew, despite what Mrs. Winthrop had said. Sometimes it felt as though the entire world knew.

But surely she wasn’t as important as all that?

And surely there were enough Redmonds and Everseas about to keep the scandal mill fed?

Her heart was thudding so hard it felt like someone was throwing angry kicks at her breastbone.

She surrendered and slid those last few inches into the chair’s embrace. Lavay’s shoulders were vast beneath that sleek, flawlessly tailored coat. She wondered if any woman had ever taken comfort there. Or perhaps the sole point of his existence was to make women feel awed and insignificant.

“And why do you now seek employment as a housekeeper for a fine residence?”

She hesitated. At least she now knew a good use for that word she loathed.

“My circumstances have since changed.”

His brows flicked upward in apparent surprise.

Since she was now convinced this would be the last time she ever saw him, she was emboldened to stare back, which wasn’t easy to do, because he somehow managed to be both exhilarating and terrifying. His eyes were an unusual color, russet and gold, a bit like brandy shot through with sunlight. She wondered if they brightened when he laughed.

If he laughed.

Faint mauve shadows curved beneath his eyes; his skin seemed stretched with fatigue. What appeared to be a new scar, faintly pink and narrow as a knife tip, scored his cheekbone for about two inches. How that must have hurt, she thought. Though it didn’t really mar his looks. It was more like an underscore: this man is beautiful and dangerous.

She suspected she now understood what “attack” meant. Something like sympathy surged through her. There was, of course, always the possibility he’d been attacked by the last housekeeper for being insufferable.

In the silence, a log tumbled from its perch and the fire gave a vehement pop.

“Circumstances,” he said ironically at last, “have an unfortunate tendency to do that.”

His mouth dented at the corner. If this was a smile, it hadn’t reached his eyes. Irony seemed his native language.

She was stunned.

She feared she stared at him dumbly in the silence that followed.

Which was so taut that when he gave his fingers a single drum on the table, she almost jumped.

“The current staff is lazy and recalcitrant, and because I have had sent to me a few possessions I value, such as silver and porcelain, thievery is a concern. But then good servants are always difficult to come by, even for such a one as me. I have high expectations and low hopes of seeing them met. What qualifies you to command loyalty and efficiency from a staff, and what makes you think you will be able to meet my expectations?”

The unspoken words being, where others have departed sobbing.

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